Book Review – Notes on Andre Gide by Roger Martin du Gard

Andre Gide dedicated his first novel, The Counterfeiters, to Roger Martin du Gard. The later repaid this act of kindness by publishing Notes on Andre Gide as an encomium to his friend and mentor. What a book! It’s not just one Nobel Laureate in Literature’s biographical sketch of another Nobel Laureate in Literature, it’s a record of some serious conversations between two of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. The author’s powers of description made me feel like I was in the room listening to his subject’s ruminations. I could visualize Gide telling me, “Whenever I have the chance to enjoy myself, I do it.” (Page 11)

I’m a huge fan of both men’s work. Du Gard’s decision to publish his memoirs on Gide elated me. For those more familiar with music, imagine Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page struck up a friendship. Years later one of them released recordings of their jam sessions. Notes on Andre Gide is in the same category for fans of great writing.

Emulating Ben Franklin, du Gard presented his thoughts on Gide “warts and all.” Literally.

The light falls on Gide’s fine head. His whole face is alive with pleasure. He puts on the tortoiseshell spectacles (which sit now above, now below, the wart on his nose, according to whether it is me or the transcript that he is looking at.) (Page 13)

Du Gard delivered a very balanced view of his subject. I didn’t expect the level of explicitness. Even when critical he still strove for fairness. Here’s an excerpt dated 1928.

Gide is being spoiled by the complaisance of his entourage. He no longer pays the least attention to the preoccupations, the desires, the troubles, or the tastes of anyone but himself. He can hardly conceive that somebody should not, at any given moment, be free. And by ‘free’ he means: ready to give up everything in order to put one’s self entirely at his disposition; ready, not only to visit him, but to share, for the inside of a day, his life, his work, his pleasures, and his meals; ready to enter into the most trifling of his anxieties; ready to speak of the subjects which preoccupy him, to the exclusion of all others; ready to laugh, if he is in the mood to be amused; or wax indignant, if he has some pretext for annoyance or chagrin; ready to sit patiently with a newspaper or a magazine while he has his siesta; ready to read the letters he has just received, and to discuss with him the answers he has prepared; ready to read on with him the book he has already begun; ready to go out, if he takes it into his head to go to an exhibition or a cinema, or to call on a colleague… (Page 59)

That’s a long passage and du Gard had a few other issues to add at the end. I included it to show the author’s eloquence and command of detail. It certainly presented an unfavorable view of Gide. The author followed it up with the very next paragraph.

(How unjust I am! And how shameful of me to give way to that moment of bad temper! Have I ever spent an hour with him, and not been the richer for it? Even on his most tyrannical days he finds an opportunity twenty times over, of giving more than he gets. He gives fresh life to everything he touches. He talks as the sower sows; and the seeds that he scatters all around him ask only to be allowed to take root, and to flower.) (Page 59)

I’ve read many biographies and memoirs. I cannot recollect an instance where the author attempted, let alone achieved, this level of objectivity.

In a previous post, I reviewed Gide’s Corydon. I wanted to get insights from this book about just why he published something so controversial. Du Gard objected to the choice, but offered an explanation.

The idea of a public confession is infectious; like the hero of a Russian novel, Gide is burning to affront Society and invite its punishment; outrage, opprobrium, the pillory—those are the things to which he aspires…He has such a strange inspired smile when he disposes of my objections! When he thinks of being misunderstood, shunned and despised—the expiatory victim of a sublime sincerity—I believe he feels enlarged and exalted. (Pages 26 – 27)

I wonder if the Chinese curse about getting what one wishes for had been around in Gide’s time.

At any rate, for his myriad contributions to the field of letters the Nobel Prize Committee honored him with the award for literature in 1947. Du Gard included the following except from the citation.

Gide has often been accused of corrupting young people and leading them astray; the great influence which none can deny him is regarded by many as an influence for evil. That is the ancient accusation which has been laid against all the emancipators of the human spirit. Protests are superfluous, however; we need only consider the worth of those who are his real disciples…It is doubtless this, as much as, or more than, his literary work which has made him well worthy of the signal honor which Sweden has just accorded him. (Pages 94 -95)

Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it.” If he’d had the opportunity to read du Gard’s Notes, even he just may have reconsidered.


Book Review – Corydon by Andre Gide

Andre Gide found Corydon so subversive that he only printed a dozen copies when he wrote it. You know there’s an issue when even the author thinks his work too controversial. To compound this, Gide kept those copies in a drawer. He didn’t release Corydon to the public until 1920: nine years later! He included the following quote in his preface: “’Friends,’ said Ibsen, ‘are dangerous not so much because of what they make you do, but what they prevent you from doing.’” (Loc 50) He went on to write:

However, I consider the considerations that I expose in this little book to be of the greatest importance, and I believe it necessary to present them. But, on the other hand, I was very worried about the public and I was ready to seal my thoughts as soon as I believed they could trouble good order. That is why, rather than by personal prudence, that I stuffed Corydon into a drawer and smothered it there for such a long time. However, these last months have persuaded me that this little book, as subversive as it might appear, is only fighting against lies, and nothing is unhealthier, for the individual and for society, then (sic) to accredit lies. (Loc 56)

Just what subject could be so disturbing and contentious for the public good? Corydon served as Gide’s philosophical justification of the then taboo topic of homosexuality.

While I’m heterosexual myself, I knew I had to read this book. I have monumental respect for those who willingly risk personal or professional well-being for the sake of their principles. I also admire people willing to fight for their civil rights in an intransigent society that refuses to yield. For those reasons, I dove into Corydon.

The unorthodox structure won’t appeal to all readers. Gide crafted it in the form of four dialogs between Corydon and an unnamed narrator. He broke the first into three parts, the second into seven, and the third into five. The fourth diverged from this pattern in that it had only one part. I didn’t care for the lack of symmetry.

Although scandalous at the time of publication, I found the narrative dry. Gide performed exhaustive research on his topic and cited many scientific studies on the subject of “uranism” as it was known in his day. Corydon, the character, did espouse some ideas that got my attention. For instance in regard to animal mating, “Fertilization is not what an animal is seeking, simply sensual pleasure.” (Loc 410) Corydon quoted Pascal’s observation that, “all tastes are natural.” The most jarring text read, “…sadism accompanies heterosexuality more than uranism does…” (Loc 358) Expressions such as the later helped to animate the book and make up for the “scientific” parts.

Walter Ballenberger did a good job translating. I did have a few minor issues. At one point Corydon removed a book by Rabelais from his shelf. He then read a passage to the narrator. In the e-book, only two and-a-half lines of periods followed; not the text the speaker cited. I also didn’t like the footnote layout. With most e-books, clicking on the number will take readers to the details. In this version of Corydon, I had to go to the end of the chapter to read them. It became cumbersome.

While Gide published Corydon as an effort to address bigotry, he included some of his own. He wrote the following virulent anti-Semitic remarks:

The Jews have become masters in the art of breaking up our most respected institutions, the most venerable, those that are even the foundation and support of our Western civilization, for the profit of I do not know what kind of license and what looseness of morals which fortunately is repugnant to our good sense and our instinct of Latin sociability. (Loc 1165)

It’s difficult to take the author seriously when he’s just as prejudiced as the target audience.

In spite of that, I thought Corydon erudite and interesting. It’s difficult to comprehend the context of the book as now homosexuals share many of the same rights as heterosexuals. At one point Gide wrote, “The most important thing is not to be cured but to live with the illness.” (Loc 181) Thanks in part to Gide, we now live in a more enlightened era where one’s sexual orientation isn’t viewed as a disease.

Book Review – “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Andre Gide

I became giddy when I found that Walter Ballenberger had translated yet another work of Andre Gide’s. Discovering Gide wrote his own rendition of a parable made this discovery Biblical in proportion for me. As I’ve learned from novels such as The Immoralist and especially Corydon, Gide didn’t hold back in terms of taking shots at society and social mores. I jumped in to “The Return of the Prodigal Son” with stratospheric expectations.

While not the controversial polemic I anticipated, I still enjoyed the story. It took me between a mere half-hour and 45 minutes to read, but it contained a deep multi-layered premise. The concepts of searching, liberty and service repeated throughout the story. During a discussion between the Prodigal Son and his mother, the following exchange appeared.

“I was not looking for happiness.”

“Then what were you looking for?”

“I was looking for…who I was.” (Loc 157)

While speaking with the Youngest Brother, the Prodigal Son revealed the following thoughts.
“I lost the liberty that I was searching for. I became captive in having to serve others.” (Loc 243)


“Ah! To serve or not to serve, does one not have the liberty to choose his serfdom?”

“I was hoping for that. As far as my feet carried me, I walked, like Saul in pursuit of his asses, in pursuit of my desire, but where I was awaiting a kingdom, it was misery that I found. And, however…”

“Did you take the wrong route?”

“I marched straight ahead.” (Loc 251)

The author presented most of the story in the form of dialog, a la Corydon, limited to two characters at a time. After rehashing the original story of the Prodigal Son, the author included more chapters to explicate it. In each, the protagonist discussed his journey with his father, older brother, mother, and youngest brother, respectively. All of these elements gave the story an intriguing structure.

I’d recommend Gide’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” to a wide audience. Those familiar with the New Testament parable will enjoy the author’s interpretation. People interested in great French Literature will also find it enlightening. Even though brief, deep, philosophical people will get the most out of this tale. If one does happen to read it after reading this review, please clue me in on the meaning in the various layers of the story.

Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.” Nothing illustrates his application of that view better than “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.